The Massachusetts Teachers Association expressed relief today that education funding and local aid accounts were largely spared from cuts in the legislative budget agreement announced yesterday, but concern that public higher education did not fare as well and that phasing in the Student Opportunity Act is on hold.
“Educators, parents and students made a powerful case to legislators that education is critically important to our recovery and should be spared the budget ax despite the recession,” said MTA President Merrie Najimy. “It is a major victory that that our message was both heard and heeded.”
In light of the state’s projected $6 billion revenue shortfall in fiscal 2021, school districts had anticipated that their state education aid could be cut by as much as 10 percent. That fear propelled them to lay off or nonrenew more than 2,000 teachers and staff this spring.
“The first thing districts must do is recall teachers and other staff who were pink-slipped due to budget fears,” Najimy said. “To operate schools under any model will require more staff members, not fewer.”
MTA Vice President Max Page noted that the battle for resources is not over.
“Although the schools’ budgets weren’t cut, they also did not receive the increases they would have received under the Student Opportunity Act,” Page said. “That act addressed very real gaps in funding for low-income students and communities of color – gaps that are worse due to the pandemic.”
The governor’s original budget, filed in January, would have increased Chapter 70 school aid to districts by $304 million under the SOA phase-in, with most of that money going to districts serving high numbers of low-income students and students of color. Instead, they will be receiving $107 million, which is the level needed to keep up with inflation and changes in enrollment, but not enough to improve services or address the costs of the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the SOA funding falls short, school districts will be receiving about $200 million in new money from the federal government to address students' educational needs.
Districts are also receiving another $170 million in federal money specifically restricted to COVID-19 relief spending. They and their local associations will have to analyze the total funding received from all sources to determine whether districts have enough to resume in-person learning when that is safe to do. Districts will have new expenses such as fixing or replacing their ventilation systems, providing personal protective equipment, reducing class sizes to enable physical distancing, and hiring more counselors, nurses and custodial staff. Schools and communities may also be saddled with high costs for surveillance testing and contact tracing.
Page said that while public higher education did not receive sufficient resources to begin to undo the years of disinvestment, the commitment of the Legislature to at least level-fund our 29 campuses means that layoffs and furloughs should be reversed.
“Our community colleges, state universities and UMass are confronting a crisis unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Page said. “Campus revenue is plunging; there are new costs to starting the academic year safely; and our administrators are laying off thousands of educators and staff. Public higher education is the engine of our state’s economy and will need additional attention and resources when the Legislature returns in September.”
He said the only realistic way to access needed resources to reverse the decades-long underfunding is for the Legislature to pass progressive taxes to fund public higher education, the Student Opportunity Act and other vital services.
“Billionaires have done very well during this pandemic, while low-income families and the unemployed are continuing to suffer,” Page said. “Fairness demands that those who have benefited handsomely from public services now contribute more to keep those services alive.”